The unusual criticism came in a letter to Bush that was signed by 60 former diplomats, including several retired ambassadors, some of whom had served in the Middle East.
The letter -- inspired by a similar protest delivered to Tony Blair recently by 52 former British ambassadors -- was released at a Washington news conference yesterday. The letter came as representatives from the Mideast Quartet met in New York and insisted that a final peace agreement must be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.
The group expressed concern over Bush's endorsement in April of a plan by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that they said would deny up to 3 million Palestinian refugees the right to settle in Israel. Bush said he expected that the great majority of Palestinians -- refugees from the 1948 Middle East war and their descendents -- would live in an independent Palestinian state, not in Israel.
It was the 1948 war that gave birth to Israel.
The Sharon plan also seeks the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip but only from parts of the West Bank. Bush endorsed the withdrawal plan but said a final peace treaty should be negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians.
Most Palestinians say Bush's decision would determine two key issues -- the right of return and the presence of Jewish settlements -- that they say should be negotiated with Israel.
The letter said Bush's policies show that "the United States is not an even-handed peace partner." It also said that by taking these positions, Bush has "placed U.S. diplomats, civilians and military doing their jobs overseas in an untenable and even dangerous position," because of growing anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and elsewhere.
It urged Bush to change his policies by reasserting what it called "American principles of justice and fairness."
Andrew Killgore, a one-time U.S. ambassador to Qatar, was one of the diplomats who signed the letter. He spoke at the news conference yesterday, saying, "We objected to the president seeming to take away, under the press of what he called 'new realities,' the right of the Palestinians to return -- which dates from 1948, as you remember -- and appearing to give Sharon the right to hold five settlement blocks in the West Bank, which would not necessarily preclude the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Robert Keeley served as U.S. ambassador to Greece. He stressed that the United States can no longer claim to be an impartial mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"U.S. policy has been that a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians must be negotiated by the two sides, with, whenever possible, the U.S. acting as a mediator or honest broker. But recently the honest broker on one side got together and decided in large measure the outcome of three of the four final status issues under the Oslo agreement that were to be negotiated by the two sides. These were settlements, borders and refugees. The fourth final-status issue, Jerusalem, was not addressed, no doubt because Israel does not consider it really negotiable," Keeley said.
The diplomats noted that the 52 British diplomats, in their letter to Tony Blair, criticized his Middle East policy and called on Britain to exert more influence over the United States. The former U.S. diplomats said they decided to follow the British example because they care deeply about U.S. foreign policy and American credibility around the world.
Killgore, the former envoy to Qatar, was asked whether going public in criticizing Bush would help change U.S. policies.
"I think we wouldn't overestimate how important we are. But there are a thousand things that go into the mix that constitute American public opinion, and this is one thing. We are experienced, we know the area, we made our living as diplomats," Killgore said.
The appeal by the former diplomats came as Mideast mediators tried to revive the peace process.
Ministers from the Quartet comprising the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations gathered in New York yesterday to discuss their road-map peace plan, which calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state by 2005 to live alongside Israel.
Afterward, they issued a joint statement at the United Nations saying the Sharon plan offered a "rare moment of opportunity" to revive progress on the Mideast peace road map.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who participated in the meeting, stressed that Bush has not abandoned his 2002 statement, which called for an end to Israeli occupation that began in 1967 through a negotiated settlement between the parties.
Keeley, the former U.S. ambassador to Greece, urged the international community to play a significant role in the peace process. When asked what role the United Nations, specifically, should play, he said the issue remained a central challenge.
"That's a very good question,” Keeley said. “I didn't specify the United Nations, primarily for the reason that you state, that Israel doesn't like the United Nations for obvious reasons. I said the international community. But to the degree that the United Nations is representative of that community, obviously they can play a role -- but not as the United Nations, because I think whatever they did would be rejected by Israel. I've just despaired of the ability of the United States at this point to influence the direction that things will take with this problem or in the Middle East in general."
Israel's Likud party on 2 May rejected Sharon's plan to withdraw from all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank, making peace even more elusive.
Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets in recent weeks and Israel's assassination of two leaders of the Hamas militant group have further undermined the peace process.